Obama's China Policy Is a Massive Failure
President Barack Obama came into office believing he could achieve a marked improvement in U.S. relations with China. Administration officials expressed their desire to broaden and deepen dialogue with Beijing while downplaying areas of disagreement.
In her first visit to China as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton suggested that the United States would not henceforth allow disputes over human rights issues to "interfere" with joint efforts to deal with "the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis." Administration spokesmen avoided the use of the term "hedging," introduced during the Bush years to describe ongoing American efforts to maintain a military balance in East Asia, and proposed instead that Beijing and Washington should henceforth pursue a policy of "strategic reassurance" toward one another.
These overtures were not reciprocated. Instead, over the course of 2009-2010, Beijing proceeded to adopt an increasingly assertive, even aggressive, stance toward both its neighbors and the United States. The reasons for this shift are a subject of debate among experts. In the wake of the financial crisis, many Chinese analysts and officials evidently concluded that American power was declining even more rapidly than had been expected.
Aware of their own internal challenges, China's leaders may have believed that a tough stance and an appeal to nationalist sentiment would help bolster popular support. Some in Beijing may also have interpreted the new U.S. administration's policies as signs of weakness that could be exploited.
Over the last two years the Obama administration has responded to China's increased assertiveness by sending its own signals of toughness and commitment under the rubric of a strategic "pivot" or return to Asia. Among other measures, it has proclaimed that the United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, and announced plans to station several naval vessels in Singapore and a small contingent of Marines in northern Australia.
The problems with this new policy are two-fold. Although the administration has since downplayed talk of the "pivot" and now generally speaks of "rebalancing," its rhetoric has caused significant diplomatic difficulties. The notion that the United States was somehow absent from Asia under the previous administration is not only factually wrong, it feeds perceptions of fickleness and raises questions about our staying power over the long run, precisely the opposite of the intended result. Talk of a "pivot" suggests that the U.S. is in the process of disengaging from Europe and the Middle East, and it has also played into Chinese claims that it is Washington that is behaving aggressively, increasing regional tensions.
The more serious difficulty with the "pivot" is that it lacks substance. The administration's tough rhetoric is belied by its decision to cut deeply into defense spending. Planned reductions in the size of the Navy, the principle instrument for projecting U.S. power into the Asia-Pacific region, are especially troubling. When it comes to Asia, the Obama administration has been talking too loudly and carrying too small a stick. Our regional friends and allies welcome signs of increased American attention, but they worry that the United States may lack the resources, and the resolve, to follow through.
Today, little remains of the Obama administration's hopes for a dramatically improved relationship with China. Indeed, it is difficult to point to an area where U.S. policy has achieved meaningful success:
In the economic realm, Beijing continues to depress the value of its currency, subsidize export industries and refuses to take adequate measures to protect intellectual property rights. The result over the last four years has been a growing trade imbalance, and a loss of jobs for American workers and billions of dollars in revenues for American companies.
Despite repeated pleas from Washington, China has failed to exert even a fraction of the leverage available to it to help contain North Korea's nuclear programs or to dissuade Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons of its own. And it has stepped up its assistance to Pakistan, providing two new reactors to a country that has been responsible for the onward transfer of nuclear technology to other states.
Beijing continues to provide aid to repressive regimes in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Ignoring U.S. appeals, China joined with Russia to veto a UN resolution calling for tough sanctions against the Syrian regime.
To judge from their most recent actions, the Chinese do not appear to be impressed by the "pivot." They have stepped up pressure on their maritime neighbors, while at the same time seeking to shift blame for heightened tensions onto others, including the United States and Japan.
This catalog of failures suggests that we need a new direction in U.S. policy toward China. A President Romney should continue to seek the best possible relationship with China. But as Romney clearly recognizes, U.S. foreign policy only succeeds when the United States operates from a position of strength - economic, military and moral.
If we are to ensure that strength in the long run, we need to put our own house in order, closing the budget deficit and reducing our massive national debt. We must work with our friends and allies to block China's efforts to pursue its interests at the expense of others, but we should simultaneously make clear that we are open to cooperative approaches from which all can benefit. Only if Beijing faces a strong and unified response will it back away from its efforts to intimidate its neighbors and extend its unilateral claims to territory and resources.
The United States and the other advanced industrial democracies must use their collective leverage to compel China to modify its predatory economic policies. Beijing should be made to pay a diplomatic price when it persists in supporting oppressive and dangerous regimes. For both moral and strategic reasons, the United States and other democratic nations should continue to speak out on behalf of those in China who fight for the freedoms we hold dear.
Given the repressive and secretive character of the current regime, it is important to be realistic in our expectations about what can be achieved. China's rulers are determined to retain their exclusive grip on political power. They must be treated with respect, but not with the kind of undue deference that might encourage them to believe that history is on their side and not on ours.